“Belfast” is a film that should be studied frame-by-frame by directors, cinematographers, storyboard artists and photographers. Even a week later, my eyes continue to be mesmerized by the images, amazed that writer/director Branagh has composed such beauty out of ordinary things in this semi-autobiographical account of a family living on the edge of violence during The Troubles in 1969.
Yet when the film starts, what we see is a port. There’s nothing particularly spectacular in the construction, layout or architecture. It could be almost anywhere, filled with color chaos. I could even be Los Angeles harbor, near where I live, instead of Belfast. Soon enough the color becomes stark black and white of the past.
When we first meet our protagonist, Buddy (Jude Hill), he is playing a knight with a wooden sword and the lid of a metal trashcan as a shield. Soon the street will be filled with violence that makes his imaginary battle seem trite and naive yet the lid will become an actual shield as Buddy’s mother, Ma (Caitríona Balfe), tries to get Buddy to safety. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) is away at work, only able to come home every fortnight. Buddy is the youngest and the family includes older brother Will (Lewis McAskie). His grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) live close by and help. Buddy seems to have a special affection for Pop.
In more peaceful times, this situation of part-time fatherly help was bearable, but as The Troubles escalate, the pressure becomes an almost tangible threat.
Buddy’s Ma finds comfort in knowing everyone on the street. While her husband talks about taking the whole family to England, leaving behind The Troubles, but also Buddy is led into his own trouble by a girl. This is not the girl he has a crush on at Grove Primary School, but a girl who encourages him to steal from the local grocer. There are other friends who become frenemies, the family who are Protestant, are asked to take sides.
The Troubles continued on, long past Branagh’s childhood. When I was in England in the early 1990s, the prejudice amongst the English against the Irish Catholics was unfettered. People had no qualms against saying that even the innocent Irish Catholics deserved to be punished. My host family mother when watching a TV news program where there was a suggestion that the Gilford Four might be innocent said something to the effect that it didn’t really matter because they–Irish Catholics–were all guilty somehow.
During that time, I remember worrying about a flatmate who had gone to London when there was a bombing. I remember being in London and having to take a different subway route because a station closed down when a bag was left unattended. I remember cyclists warning not to lock your bike in certain places. The police might take your bicycle apart, looking for explosives. That’s how serious it was in London. Imagine what it was like in Belfast.
And yet, my time in England and London profoundly changed my concept of the so-called West and that was aided by the help of an Irish Catholic college couple who were assigned to me to help me acculturate. They were people I could not take to my host family and my host family weren’t the only ones who showed anti-Irish or anti-Irish Catholic bias. Doubtlessly, moving away from Belfast changed Branagh.
While Branagh grew up White and Protestant, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know prejudice. Like Black people and Asian people, White people are not a monolith and “Belfast” doesn’t emphasize that point but gently suggests it. There’s nothing polemic about this film which is colored black and white in the nostalgic eyes of Branagh, the only thing tinted with the truth as universal and unchanging are the TV shows or films of the time, like TOS “Star Trek” or the 1966 “One Million Years B.C” which features Raquel Welch in the infamous fur bikini.
This is the kind of film, I would watch over and over again for the feeling of love of both cinema and Belfast that Branagh reveals.